The brisk Sinfonia suggested an energetic, committed performance. Control of dynamics was literally vital, moments of sudden quiet allowing further urgent build up. Within a few seconds it was clear that the Dunedin Consort contained the oboe section to die for. Frances Norbury and Leo Duarte's paired passages suggested near-telepathic sensibility and, following a dramatically Handelian interrupted cadence, Norbury's lyrical playing led the music towards the opening chorus.

Acis & Galatea performance in Perth © Dunedin Consort
Acis & Galatea performance in Perth
© Dunedin Consort
In our age of five-season box-sets the dramatic content of Handel's 1718 Acis and Galatea HMV49a feels slight; extended episodes are given over to expression of pastoral contentment. The chorus "Oh the pleasure of the plains" is one such moment. A quintet of soprano, three tenors and bass extoll the virtues of country life in a mixture of homophonic and contrapuntal textures. All looked as happy here as was being claimed, particularly soprano Joanne Lunn who then (as Galatea rather than simply a chorus member) bid the "pretty warbling choir" desist as their simple contentment heightened awareness of the pains of separation from her beloved Acis. Hers was the first of the evening's many fine examples of da capo aria ornamentation. Ornithological descant was provided by Pamela Thorby's wonderful recorder playing.

Tenors Nicholas Mulroy (Acis) and Thomas Hobbs (Damon) furnished the following five numbers, the former petitioning help in the search for lost Galatea, the latter recommending that the love-sick shepherd postpone love's pains and enjoy present pastoral pleasures. Hobbs energetic delivery of Handel's melismatic "pleasure" was itself a pleasure and the fiery Dunedin Consort put further spring in his step. During Acis' quiet recitative, informing us that he has spotted Galatea, we had the opportunity to notice the lovely tone of the harpsichord from which a standing John Butt directed the Dunedin Consort. Mulroy's siciliano serenading of newly found Galatea was really lovely. His ornamentation in the Da Capo of "Love in her eyes sits playing" was as impressive as it was affecting and the aria's tenderness was enhanced throughout by fine obbligato oboe.

Perhaps something in the human condition makes foreboding-filled numbers register more than those expressing contentment; the angular five-part fugal chorus "Wretched Lovers", which opened the second half, promised gripping things to follow. There were some dark harmonic shifts portending Polyphemus' murder of Acis. Moreover, the languorous "wretched lovers" motif was pitted against the agitated "the monster Polypheme" creating wonderfully precipitative tension.

Having seen/heard bass Matthew Brook in two Passions and a Requiem, I was surprised and delighted at his comic gift. With no reduction in vocal quality, he played Polyphemus for laughs. Initially, when expressing rage at Galatea's love for Acis, he looked genuinely terrifying. This segued into a comically lascivious rendition of "O ruddier than the cherry" whose high point was the ripping open of his shirt to reveal his tormented breast. This light moment rendered all the more poignant the later suggestion of rejected Polyphemus as a hurting giant in "Cease to beauty to be suing". I was reminded of King Kong, though certainly not by physical similarity. Angry melisma on "disdaining" was impressive, as was Brook's powerful lower register.

"I was reminded of King Kong" © Dunedin Consort
"I was reminded of King Kong"
© Dunedin Consort
Tenor Thomas Walker, in the role of Coridon, advised Polyphemus that kindness outweighs force in wooing. Once again this aria was blessed by fine vocal ornamentation and oboe playing. By means of demisemiquaver rising scales culminating in a hunting-horn-style call, the oboes sustained a high profile in "Love Sounds the Alarm" whose curiously jaunty music accompanied Acis' courageous query, "when beauty's the prize, what mortal fears dying?"

More oboe obbligato beauty and wonderful, suspension-filled string harmonies accompanied Thomas Hobbs in the tender aria "Consider, fond shepherd" in which Acis is asked to weigh up the value of love's fleeting pleasures. Clearly, no drama worth its salt would have Acis consider this option and he goes on to swear undying love, as does Galatea. Sadly, this love duo is gatecrashed in a musically ingenious way by Polyphemus, who soon dispatches Acis, bludgeoning him with a stone. Although this was essentially a concert performance, Mulroy dutifully fell when slain. The following chorus, "Mourn, all ye muses", featured haunting a cappella moments on the words "is no more". Joanne Lunn's voice soared out of the quintet texture on the word "howlings" which, I was intrigued to see spelled "houlings" in the score. Justice à la Classics prevails and Galatea immortalises Acis, as a fountain; not my default post-bludgeoning choice.

What I loved in this closing performance of the fifth Lammermuir Festival, was that everyone looked delighted to be taking part. When not actively involved the singers and musicians seemed genuinely to be enjoying the contribution of others as much as we were.

****1